Leon Trotsky

Leon Trotsky

Until the decline in Lenin’s in 1922, Leon Trotsky was the number-two man in the Bolshevik party and Lenin’s obvious successor. Trotsky was a crucial figure for almost the entirety of the revolution: from the creation of the Petrograd Soviet in 1905 to the crushing of the Kronstadt uprising in 1921. During this period he performed several significant roles: chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, creator and overseer of the Military Revolutionary Committee (Milrevcom), chief negotiator with the Germans in 1918, the architect of the Red Army, a Commissar for War and an influential economic strategist. While Lenin was the party’s intellectual figurehead Trotsky was in many respects its chief organiser. He possessed some of the charisma and leadership qualities that Lenin lacked, although his lack of political intuition eventually proved fatal.

Trotsky was born in Ukraine in 1879, the son of a prosperous farmer. He was given the name Lev Bronstein, after an uncle who had unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Alexander II (there was a revolutionary streak in his family as there had been in Lenin’s).  Bronstein’s parents were Jewish and although they were not religious, they were often the target of the hateful anti-Semitism that infected tsarist Russia.

Sent away to boarding school, the young Bronstein became involved in revolutionary politics, first as a member of the Narodniki and later as a Marxist. In his late teens, he became a union organiser and socialist propagandist. In 1900 Bronstein was arrested and sentenced to four years’ exile in Siberia. He escaped in 1902 with a forged passport bearing the adopted name by which he later became known: Leon Trotsky. In 1903 he attended the Social Democrats’ Congress, where he initially sided with the Mensheviks.

Unlike Lenin, Trotsky was in Russia during the 1905 Revolution. He was elected vice-chairman, then chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, despite being just 26 years old. After the Soviet was crushed by tsarist troops Trotsky was again sent to Siberia, though he quickly escaped. He spent most of the next decade in exile, mainly in France, Switzerland, Spain and the United States. In the early 1910s, Trotsky undertook several attempts to reconcile Lenin, Martov and their followers. When the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions split irrevocably in early 1912, Trotsky attempted to undo the damage by organising a ‘unity congress’, however, the move failed. He later collaborated with the Mezhraiontsyi, a group of intellectuals who strived for party reconciliation.

“Trotsky moved like a bright comet across the political sky. He first came to global attention in 1917. By all accounts, he was the finest orator of the Russian Revolution. He led the Military-Revolutionary Committee… He did more than anyone to found the Red Army. He belonged to the party Politburo and had a deep impact on its political, economic and military strategy. The whole world attributed the impact of the October Revolution to his partnership with Lenin. [But] before 1917 Trotsky had been an enemy of Bolshevism, and many Bolsheviks did not let him forget it.”
Robert Service

Trotsky was in New York when the February Revolution toppled Nicholas II from power. After hearing this news he immediately returned to Russia, arriving in May 1917. Over the course of the year, Trotsky began to lose faith in the Menshevik movement, instead drawing closer to Lenin. Perhaps the most pivotal moment in Trotsky’s political transformation was the failed ‘July Days’ uprising, which convinced him that without strong leadership from the Bolsheviks, the people were incapable of seizing power.

In August 1917 Trotsky observed that “the factory committees… are in an overwhelming majority made up of Bolsheviks. In the Petrograd trades unions everyday practical work… lies wholly with the Bolsheviks. In the workers’ section of the Petrograd Soviet, the Bolsheviks constitute an overwhelming majority.” Trotsky himself worked for the Bolshevik cause in the Petrograd Soviet (he was elected chairman there again in early October). He also took a leading role in organising the Red Guards, a militia comprised of factory workers.

It is no overstatement to suggest that Trotsky was the individual most responsible for the success of the October Revolution. Early in the month he introduced a resolution into the Bolshevik-controlled Petrograd Soviet, calling for the formation of a military committee to prepare the “revolutionary defence of Petrograd”. The resolution was passed and the Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC, or Milrevcom) was formed. In theory, the Milrevcom and the Red Guards were formed to protect the Bolsheviks; but in reality, they were tools for an armed insurrection against the Provisional Government. Trotsky also joined the Bolshevik Central Committee, where he supported Lenin’s calls for a socialist revolution.

Joseph Stalin, later Trotsky’s bitter rival, wrote in 1918 that “all practical work in connection with the organisation of the uprising was done under [Trotsky’s] immediate direction… the Party is indebted primarily and principally to Comrade Trotsky for the efficient manner in which the work of the Military Revolutionary Committee was organised.” Once Stalin had seized the reins of power, this passage was expunged from official records.

Trotsky’s importance continued into the new society. He was an important member of the Communist Party Politburo and the lead negotiator with the Germans at Brest-Litovsk. Trotsky’s organisation of the Red Army and political and military leadership during the Civil War was also critical. But Trotsky was not without his faults. While he was a rousing public speaker and a brilliant theorist and organiser, Trotsky was also prone to arrogance, dismissiveness and sarcasm, qualities that made him unpopular with other Bolsheviks. These shortcomings were identified by Lenin in his 1922 ‘political testament’, where he acknowledged Trotsky’s talents but noted that he “displayed excessive self-assurance and… excessive preoccupation with the purely administrative side of the work.” Trotsky’s over-confidence eventually proved fatal when Stalin, his arch-nemesis, outmanoeuvred him and seized control of the party in the early 1920s. By Lenin’s death in early 1924, Trotsky had been virtually excluded from power. Stalin eventually had him expelled from the Soviet Union in 1929.

Trotsky spent the rest of his life in exile in France and then Mexico, where he wrote prolifically. In 1930 he penned a history of the Russian Revolution; several years later he wrote a scathing criticism of Russia under Stalin, titled The Revolution Betrayed. Back in Russia, Stalinist propaganda demonised Trotsky as a traitor, a saboteur and an enemy of the state. Trotsky was virtually written out of official Soviet histories of the revolution, while many of the problems of the new society were laid at his feet. In 1940 a Stalinist agent, Ramon Mercarder, was able to enter Trotsky’s home in Mexico and stab him in the head with an icepick. Trotsky died the following day.

1. Leon Trotsky, born Lev Bronstein, was a Marxist writer, orator and organiser who in 1917 became a significant Bolshevik leader.

2. In 1903 Trotsky sided with the Mensheviks against Lenin, though he later sought to reconcile the two SD factions.

3. In 1917 Trotsky returned from exile and began to work with the Bolsheviks, especially in the Petrograd Soviet.

4. He organised the Red Guards and Milrevcom and supported Lenin’s call for an armed insurrection.

5. Trotsky later negotiated peace with the Germans at Brest-Litovsk, served as Commissar for War, formed the Red Army, led the Civil War effort and was a pivotal member of the Politburo. He was eventually elbowed out of positions of power by Stalin.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, John Rae and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Leon Trotsky” at Alpha History, https://alphahistory.com/russianrevolution/leon-trotsky/, 2014, accessed [date of last access].